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A group foster home + abused and at-risk kids + tough love + junior staff nearly as troubled as their charges: The potential for cliche is everywhere in Destin Cretton's enormously engaging Short Term 12, and — happily — is everywhere avoided. What might seem on paper a cloyingly sentimental heartwarmer becomes, in Cretton's hands, a briskly believable, often funny, always invigorating and ultimately wrenching story of emotional fortitude.
The film takes its title from ground rules at the ungated suburban facility where 20-something counselors Grace (a luminous Brie Larson) and Mason (an easygoing John Gallagher Jr.) ride herd over variously angry and depressed teenage residents. It's a safe environment, with licensed therapists on campus, but it's designed to be only a temporary way station where courts and social service authorities can remand troubled kids for up to one year.
As we get to know the residents — among them, delicately featured Sammy (Alex Calloway), whose periodic getaway attempts send coffee cups flying as counselors tackle him midlawn; seething Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who's on the verge of aging out of foster care and expresses himself in snarled raps; withdrawn Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who insists she won't waste time on short-term relationships because her father will soon rescue her — it's clear how scant a year's time is for stabilizing lives gone awry. And when counselors swap memories of former residents, the dangers of early departure from the cocoon come into focus as well.
Not that the counselors have a lot of time for storytelling, as they shift from dispensing pills and confiscating sharp objects to playing elder sibling and mopping up blood. The more senior therapists may call the shots, but it's Grace and Mason who are in the trenches with the kids — connecting, comforting, hand-holding.
"It's not your job to interpret tears," a supervisor warns Grace at one point, as if she could do anything less, given so intense a level of engagement.
As much as all of this sounds like a recipe for one of those upbeat, earnest, we've-got-to-help-the-children sagas, that's not really what the filmmaker has cooked up. Having worked in a facility of this sort, Cretton pretty effortlessly makes the ambiance persuasive, the conflicts convincing, the teens vibrant and real. He's actually making a second pass at the material, his short film of the same title having won a jury prize at Sundance in 2009. What's striking here is that he takes us inside the heads of the counselors, weaving their doubts and conflicts with those of their charges to create a complex, welcome-to-the-asylum, the-inmates-are-in-charge style portrait of institutional life.
He's a canny storyteller, getting the audience invested in characters and taking his time with revelations. He's also summoned delicately expressive and potentially career-making performances from his leads — Larson, who has slimmed down and grown up since The United States of Tara and is having a sensational run, what with 21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's upcoming Don Jon; and Gallagher, who is scruffier and more earthily appealing here than he is as Jim in The Newsroom. Other performances — particularly those of the facility's resident rebels, Stanfield's scared rapper and Dever's scarred recluse — are also affecting.
Short Term 12 admittedly traffics in melodramatic twists and turns — enough in fact, that it might easily have been little more than a densely plotted indie drama. But Cretton's sharp script and guiding hand have molded it into something more, a nuanced look at the effects of childhood abuse that manages to be at once harrowing and hopeful, intimate and cathartic. The film is a quiet sensation. (Recommended)